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Cromwell's Campaign In Ireland
Author: Harrison, Frederic
Cromwell's Campaign In Ireland
1649
 


Alike on account of its effect upon the Irish people and by reason of the
historical debate of which it has continued to be the subject, Cromwell's
Irish campaign is a matter of much moment to students of British policy and
conquest.

Cromwell had already won a complete victory for the Parliamentary forces
over the Royalists of England and Scotland, and had suppressed an insurrection
in Wales. As a member of the High Court he had signed the death-warrant of
Charles I, and on the establishment of the Commonwealth, early in 1649, his
preeminence in both military and political leadership gave him almost absolute
control of the English government.

In 1641 there had been a Catholic uprising in Ireland which was attended
with considerable success, won at the cost of slaughter often characterized as
massacre. Although Charles I made peace with the insurrectionists in 1643,
and soon afterward most of them became Royalists, disorders in Ireland still
continued. At last the English Parliament resolved to put an end to these
tumults, and in March, 1649, Cromwell was appointed to the supreme command in
Ireland.

Among the many able writers on Oliver Cromwell none has treated this
portion of his career with greater clearness and impartiality than Frederic
Harrison, whose history of the campaign in Ireland has been selected,
particularly for the sake of these merits, for presentation here.

The reconquest of Ireland was by all felt to be the most urgent interest
of the young commonwealth; there was almost as much agreement to intrust
Cromwell with the task; and after some consideration, and prayerful
consultations in the army, he accepted the duty. The condition of England was
precarious indeed; service in Ireland was not popular in the army; and an
ambitious adventurer would have been loath to quit England while the first
place was still unoccupied. It was at great risk to the cause, and at much
personal sacrifice, that Cromwell accepted the difficult post in Ireland as
his first duty to his country and to religion.

His campaign and the subsequent settlement in Ireland are among those
things which weigh heaviest on Cromwell's memory, and which of his stoutest
admirers one only has heartily approved. Fortunately, there is no part of his
policy where his conduct is more simple and his motives are more plain. The
Irish policy of Cromwell was the traditional policy of all Englishmen of his
creed and party, and was distinguished from theirs only by his personal vigor
and thoroughness. He was neither better nor worse than the English Puritans,
or rather all English statesmen for many generations: he was only keener and
stronger. When he, with Vane, Fairfax, Whitelocke, and other commissioners,
went to the Guildhall to obtain a loan for the campaign, they told the common
council that this was a struggle not between Independent and Presbyterian, but
between papist and Protestant; that papacy or popery was not to be endured in
that kingdom; and they cited the maxim of James I: "Plant Ireland with
Puritans, root out papists, and then secure it."

To Cromwell, as to all English Puritans, it seemed a self-evident truth
that one of the three realms could not be suffered to become Catholic; as
little could it be suffered to become independent, or the open practice of the
Catholic religion allowed there, any more than in England; finally, that peace
and prosperity could never be secured in Ireland without a dominant and
preponderating order of English birth and Protestant belief. By Cromwell, as
by the whole Puritan body - we may fairly say by the whole body of Protestants
- the Irish rebellion of 1641 was believed to have opened with a barbarous,
treacherous, and wholesale massacre, followed during nine years by one
prolonged scene of confusion and bloodshed, ending in an almost complete
extinction of the Protestant faith and English interests.

The victorious party, and Cromwell more deeply than others, entered on
the recovery of Ireland in the spirit of a religious war, to restore to the
Protestant cause one of the three realms which had revolted to the powers of
darkness. Such was for centuries the spirit of Protestant England.

Five months were occupied in the preparations for this distant and
difficult campaign. Cromwell's nomination was on March 15, 1649. On the same
day Milton was appointed Latin secretary to the council. During April
Cromwell arranged the marriage of his eldest son with the daughter of a very
quiet, unambitious squire. On July 10th he set forth from London with much
military state. His lifeguard was a body of gentlemen "as is hardly to be
paralleled in the world." He still waited a month in the West, his wife and
family around him; and thence wrote his beautiful letter to Mayor about his
son, and the letter to "my beloved daughter Dorothy Cromwell, at Hursley."

At length all was ready, and he set sail on August 13th with nine
thousand men in about one hundred ships. He was invested with supreme civil,
as well as military, command in Ireland; amply supplied with material and a
fleet. Ireton, his son-in-law, was his second in command.

On landing in Dublin, the general made a speech to the people, in which
he spoke of his purpose as "the great work against the barbarous and
bloodthirsty Irish, and all their adherents and confederates, for the
propagating of the gospel of Christ, the establishing of truth and peace, and
restoring that bleeding nation to its former happiness and tranquillity." His
first act was to remodel the Irish army, making "a huge purge of the army
which we found here: it was an army made up of dissolute and debauched men";
and the general issued a proclamation against swearing and drunkenness, and
another against the "wickedness" that had been taken by the soldiery "to
abuse, rob, and pillage, and too often to execute cruelties upon the country
people," promising to protect all peaceable inhabitants, and to pay them in
ready money for all goods. Two soldiers were shortly hanged for disobeying
these orders.

Having made a general muster of his forces in Dublin, and formed a
complete body of fifteen thousand horse and foot, he selected a force of ten
thousand stout, resolute men, and advanced on Drogheda (in English, Tredagh).
Drogheda is a seaport town on the Boyne, about twenty-three miles due north of
Dublin. It was strongly fortified, and Ormonde, ^1 as Clarendon tells us, had
put into it "the flower of his army, both of soldiers and officers, most of
them English, to the number of three thousand foot, and two or three good
troops of horse, provided with all things." Sir Arthur Ashton, an English
Catholic, an officer "of great name and experience, and who at that time made
little doubt of defending it against all the power of Cromwell," was in chief
command.

[Footnote 1: James Butler, first Duke of Ormonde, was now head of the Irish
Royalists. - Ed.]

Cromwell's horse reached Drogheda on September 3d, his memorable day;
some skirmishes followed, and on the 10th the batteries opened in earnest,
after formal summons to the garrison to surrender. A steeple and a tower were
beaten down the first day; all through the 11th the batteries continued, and
at length effected "two reasonable breaches." About five in the evening of the
second day the storm began. "After some hot dispute we entered, about seven
or eight hundred men; the enemy disputing it very stiffly with us." But a
tremendous rally of the garrison - wherein Colonel Castle and other officers
were killed - drove out the column, which retreated disheartened and baffled.
Then the general did that which as commander he was seldom wont to do, and
which he passes in silence in his despatches.

"Resolved," says Ludlow, "to put all upon it, he went down to the breach;
and calling out a fresh reserve of Colonel Ewer's men, he put himself at their
head, and with the word 'our Lord God,' led them up again with courage and
resolution, though they met with a hot dispute." Thus encouraged to recover
their loss, they got ground of the enemy, forced him to quit his
intrenchments, and poured into the town. There many retreated to the
Millmount, a place very strong and difficult of access; "exceedingly high and
strongly palisaded." This place commanded the whole town: thither Sir Arthur
Ashton and other important officers had betaken themselves. But the storming
party burst in, and were ordered by Cromwell to put them all to the sword. The
rest of the garrison fled over the bridge to the northern side of the town;
but the Ironsides followed them hotly, both horse and foot, and drove them
into St. Peter's Church and the towers of the ramparts.

St. Peter's Church was set on fire by Cromwell's order. He writes to the
speaker: "Indeed, being in the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any
that were in arms in the town: and I think that night they put to the sword
about two thousand men." Next day the other towers were summoned, and the work
of slaughter was renewed for two days, until the entire garrison was
annihilated. It was unquestionably a massacre. "That night they put to the
sword about two thousand men." In St. Peter's Church "near a thousand of them
were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety." "Their friars were knocked
on the head promiscuously." "I do not think we lost a hundred men upon the
place." Such are a few passages from Cromwell's own despatches.

The slaughter was indeed prodigious. The general writes: "I believe we
put to the sword the whole number of the defendants. I do not think thirty of
the whole number escaped with their lives." "The enemy were about three
thousand strong in the town." "I do not believe, neither do I hear, that any
officer escaped with his life, save only one lieutenant." He subsequently
gives a detailed list of the slain, amounting to about three thousand. Hugh
Peters, the chaplain, reports as follows:

"Sir, the truth is, Drogheda is taken, three thousand five hundred
fifty-two of the enemy slain, and sixty-four of ours. Ashton the governor,
killed, none spared." It is also certain that quarter was refused. "I forbade
them to spare any that were in arms in the town." It is expressly told us that
all officers and all priests taken were killed. From the days of Clarendon it
has been repeated by historians that men, women, and children were
indiscriminately slaughtered, and there is evidence of an eye-witness to that
effect; but this is not believed to have been done by the order, or even with
the knowledge, of the general. The Royalist accounts insist that quarter was
promised at first; and that the butchery of men in cold blood was carried on
for days. Here again the act must have been exceptional and without
authority.

To Cromwell himself this fearful slaughter was a signal triumph of the
truth. "It hath pleased God to bless our endeavors." "This hath been a
marvellous great mercy." "I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of
God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much
innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the
future. Which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise
cannot but work remorse and regret." "It was set upon some of our hearts, That
a great thing should be done, not by power or might, but by the Spirit of
God." In the same sense it was received by Parliament and council of state, by
some of the noblest spirits of their age.

Ludlow says simply that this "extraordinary severity was used to
discourage others from making opposition." It had always been the policy of
Cromwell in battle to inflict a crushing defeat; at Marston, at Naseby, and at
Preston he had "taken execution of the enemy" for hours and over miles of
country. At Basing and elsewhere, after a summons and a storm, he had
slaughtered hundreds without mercy. And such was the law of war in that age,
practised on both sides without hesitation. But the item of numbers and of
time tells very heavily here. The killing of hundreds in hot blood differs
from the massacre of thousands during days.

There was no such act in the whole civil war as the massacre - prolonged
for days - of three thousand men enclosed in walls entirely at the mercy of
their captors, to say nothing of the promiscuous slaughter of priests, if not
of women and unarmed men.

In England such a deed could not have been done; and not in Ireland, but
that they were Catholics fighting in defence of their faith. The fact that
the garrison were Catholics, fighting on Irish soil, placed them, to the
Puritan Englishman, out of the pale. No admiration for Cromwell, for his
genius, courage, and earnestness - no sympathy with the cause that he upheld
in England - can blind us to the truth, that the lurid light of this great
crime burns still after centuries across the history of England and of
Ireland; that it is one of those damning charges which the Puritan theology
has yet to answer at the bar of humanity.

The tremendous blow at Drogheda struck terror into Ormonde's forces.
Dundalk and Trim were abandoned in haste. O'Neil swore a great oath that as
Cromwell had stormed Drogheda, if he should storm hell he should take it. One
fort after another yielded; and in a fortnight from the taking of Drogheda
Cromwell was master of the country north of Dublin. Marching from Dublin
south, on September 23d, his army took forts in Wicklow, Arklow, and
Enniscorthy; and on October 1st the general encamped before Wexford, an
important seaport at the southeastern corner of the island. The town was
strong, with a rampart fifteen feet thick, a garrison of over two thousand
men, one hundred cannon, and in the harbor two ships armed with fifty-four
guns.

Cromwell summoned the governor to surrender, not obscurely threatening
him with the fate of Drogheda. "It will clearly appear," he said, "where the
guilt will lie if innocent persons should come to suffer with the nocent." His
terms were quarter and prison to the officers, quarter and freedom to the
soldiers, protection from plunder to the town. These terms were refused, and
both sides continued the fight. Suddenly, some breaches being made in the
castle, the captain surrendered it, and by a surprise the whole army of the
Commonwealth poured into the town. The townsmen took part in the defence; and
townsmen and garrison together were forced into the market-place.

There, as at Drogheda, a promiscuous massacre ensued. Upward of two
thousand were slain, and with them not a few of the citizens; and the town was
delivered over to pillage. It is asserted by the Catholic writers that a body
of women, who had taken refuge round the cross, were deliberately slaughtered,
and that a general massacre took place without regard to sex or age. Priests
were killed at once, and in the sack and pillage undoubtedly some
noncombatants, it may be some women and children. But these things were
incidents of such a storm, and were not done by design or order of the
general. This is his own story:

"While I was preparing of it; studying to preserve the Town from plunder,
that it might be of the more use to you and your Army - the Captain, who was
one of the Commissioners, being fairly treated, yielded up the Castle to us.
Upon the top of which our men no sooner appeared, but the Enemy quitted the
Walls of the Town; which our men perceiving, ran violently upon the Town with
their ladders, and stormed it. And when they were come into the market-place,
the Enemy making a stiff resistance, our forces brake them; and then put all
to the sword that came in their way. Two boatfuls of the Enemy attempting to
escape, being overprest with numbers, sank; whereby were drowned near three
hundred of them. I believe, in all, there was lost of the Enemy not many less
than Two-thousand; and I believe not Twenty of yours from first to last of the
Siege. And indeed it hath, not without cause, been deeply set upon our
hearts, That, we intending better to this place than so great a ruin, hoping
the Town might be of more use to you and your Army, yet God would not have it
so; but by an unexpected providence, in His righteous justice, brought a just
judgment upon them; causing them to become a prey to the Soldier - who in
their piracies had made preys of so many families, and now with their bloods
to answer the cruelties which they have exercised upon the lives of divers
poor Protestants!

"This Town is now so in your power, that of the former inhabitants, I
believe scarce one in twenty can challenge any property in their houses. Most
of them are run away, and many of them killed in this service. And it were to
be wished that an honest people would come and plant here."

The blow that had desolated Drogheda and Wexford did not need to be
repeated. Ross was taken; the Munster garrisons - Cork, Kinsale, and others -
joined the Commonwealth. And within three months of Cromwell's march from
Dublin, the whole of the towns on the eastern and southern sides of Ireland,
except Waterford and some others, were reduced to the Parliament. Waterford
resisted them; a wet winter set in; and with the wet, dysentery and fever.
Cromwell fell ill; many officers sickened; General Jones died. "What England
lost hereby is above me to speak," wrote the general. "I am sure I lost a
noble friend and companion in labors. You see how God mingles out the cup to
us. Indeed we are at this time a crazy company: yet we live in His sight; and
shall work the time that is appointed us, and shall rest after that in peace."

After a short rest, on January 29th Cromwell was again in the field. He
passed into the heart of the island - into Kilkenny and Tipperary; Clogheen,
Castletown, Fethard, Callan, Cashel, Cahir, Kilkenny, Carrick, were taken
after a short defence; and Clonmel at last surrendered after a desperate
attempt at storm, which cost Cromwell, it is said, two thousand men. This was
his last great fight in Ireland. He had nor crushed opposition in the whole
east and south of the island; the north had returned to the Protestant cause;
Waterford fell soon after; and except Limerick, Galway, and a few fortresses,
the Parliament's forces were masters of the island. Cromwell had been nine
months in Ireland, and at no time possessed an army of more than fifteen
thousand men. Within that time he had taken a score of strong places, and in
a series of bloody encounters had dispersed or annihilated armies of far
greater number than his own. An official summons to England had been sent in
January; and it was not till the end of May that he actually obeyed it.

As Cromwell's practice in warfare in Ireland differed somewhat from what
he observed elsewhere, and as from that day to this it has been the subject of
furious invective, a few words thereon are plainly needed. Cromwell had gone
to Ireland, at imminent risk to his cause, to recover it to the Parliament in
the shortest possible time, and with a relatively small army. He had gone
there first to punish, as was believed, a wholesale massacre and a social
revolution, to restore the Irish soil to England, and to replace the
Protestant ascendency. In the view of the Commonwealth government, the mass
was by law a crime, Catholic priest were legally outlaws, and all who resisted
the Parliament were constructively guilty of murder and rebellion. Such were
the accepted axioms of the whole Puritan party, and of Cromwell as much as any
man.

In such a war he held that where a place was stormed after summons, all
in arms might justly be put to the sword, though no longer capable of
resistance, and though they amounted to thousands. "They," he writes,
"refusing conditions seasonably offered, were all put to the sword."
Repeatedly he shot all officers who surrendered at discretion. Officers who
had once served the Parliament he hanged. Priests, taken alive, were hanged.
"As for your clergymen, as you call them," wrote Oliver to the governor of
Kilkenny, "in case you agree for a surrender, they shall march away safely;
but if they fall otherwise into my hands, I believe they know what to expect
from me." At Gowran the castle surrendered. "The next day the colonel, the
major, and the rest of the commission officers were shot to death. In the
same castle also he took a popish priest, who was chaplain to the Catholics in
this regiment; who was caused to be hanged."

The Bishop of Ross, marching to save Clonmel with five thousand men, was
defeated by Broghill, captured, and hanged in sight of his own men. The
Bishop of Clogher was routed by Coote and Venables and shared the same fate.
"All their friars were knocked on the head promiscuously," Cromwell wrote at
Drogheda - as the Catholic martyrologies assert, with torture. Peaceable
inhabitants were not to be molested. But all who had taken part in or
supported the rebellion of 1641 were liable to justice.

For soldiers he found a new career. By a stroke of profound policy he
encouraged foreign embassies to enlist Irish volunteers, giving them a free
pass abroad. And thus it is said some forty thousand Irishmen ultimately
passed into the service of foreign sovereigns. With great energy and skill
the Lord-Lieutenant set about the reorganization of government in Ireland. A
leading feature of this was the Cromwellian settlement afterward carried out
under the Protectorate, by which immense tracts of land in the provinces of
Ulster, Leinster, and Munster were allotted to English settlers, and the
landowners of Irish birth removed into Connaught.

Cromwell has left on record his own principles of action in the famous
declaration which he issued in January in reply to the Irish bishops:

"Ireland," he says, "was once united to England. Englishmen had
inheritances and leases which they had purchased: and they lived peaceably.
You broke this Union. You, unprovoked, put the English to the most unheard -
of and most barbarous massacre (without respect of sex or age) that ever the
sun beheld. It is a fig-leaf of pretence that they fight for their king:
really it is for men guilty of blood - bellum prelaticum et religiosum - as
you say. You are a part of Anti-Christ, whose kingdom the Scripture so
expressly speaks should be laid in blood, yea, in the blood of the saints.

"You quote may own words at Ross," he says, "that where the Parliament of
England have power, the exercise of the mass will not be allowed of; and you
say that this is a design to extirpate the Catholic religion. I cannot
extirpate what has never been rooted. These are my intentions. I shall not,
where I have power, suffer the exercise of the mass. Nor shall I suffer any
Papists, where I find them seducing the people, or by overt act violating the
laws. As for the people, what thoughts they have in matters of religion in
their own breasts I cannot reach.

But as to the charge of massacre, destruction, or banishment he says:
"Give us an instance of one man since my coming into Ireland, not in arms,
massacred, destroyed or banished; concerning the massacre or the destruction
of whom justice hath not been done, or endeavored to be done."

This very pointed and daring challenge could hardly have been publicly
made by such a man as Cromwell, if, to his knowledge, a slaughter of women and
unarmed men had occurred. On the other hand, it is certain that priests and
others had been killed in cold blood; and a general who delivers over a city
to pillage, and forbids quarter, can hardly say where outrage and massacre
will cease. As to banishment, the "Cromwellian settlement" was necessarily
based on the banishment of those whom the settlers displaced.

With regard to the policy of confiscation and resettlement, Cromwell
warmly justifies it. It is the just way of meeting rebellion, he says. You
have forfeited your estates, and it is just to raise money by escheating your
lands. But apart from the land forfeited, which is but a part of the account,
if ever men were engaged in a just and righteous cause it was this, he
asserts:

"We are come to ask an account of the innocent blood that hath been shed;
and to endeavor to bring to an account - by the presence and blessing of the
Almighty, in whom alone is our hope and strength - all who, by appearing in
arms, seek to justify the same. We come to break the power of lawless Rebels,
who having cast off the Authority of England, live as enemies to Human
Society; whose principles, the world hath experience, are, To destroy and
subjugate all men not complying with them. We come, by the assistance of God,
to hold forth and maintain the lustre and glory of English Liberty in a Nation
where we have an undoubted right to do it; - wherein the people of Ireland (if
they listen not to such seducers as you are) may equally participate in all
benefits; to use liberty and fortune equally with Englishmen, if they keep out
of arms."

Such was the basis of the famous "Cromwellian settlement" - by far the
most thorough act in the long history of the conquest of Ireland; by far the
most wholesale effort to impose on Ireland the Protestant faith and English
ascendency. Wholesale and thorough, but not enough for its purpose. It
failed like all the others; did more, perhaps, than any other to bind Ireland
to the Catholic Church, and to alienate Irishmen from the English rule. On
the Irish race it has left undying memories and a legend of tyranny which is
summed up in the peasants' saying of the "Curse of Cromwell."

Cromwell, not worse than the Puritans and English of his age, but nobler
and more just, must yet for generations to come bear the weight of the
legendary "curse." He was the incarnation of Puritan passion, the instrument
of English ambition; the official authority by whom the whole work was carried
out, the one man ultimately responsible for the rest; and it is thus that on
him lies chiefly the weight of this secular national quarrel.
 

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